Posts Tagged ‘social policing’

On misperceiving someone as femme or butch (again)

May 8, 2008  |  essays  |  7 Comments

A couple heated comments about my last post already, and I want to make a couple things clearer.

First:

I believe it is absolutely okay to not identify with the labels of butch or femme – or any label, for that matter. I think identity categories should be chosen by ourselves, not by others, and if a label is not chosen, it should not ever be imposed.

Period.

(Sometimes I feel like that should be written at the top and bottom of every post, just to make it clear. I want to write it in all caps, in bold, in italics, underlined: I support your identity, whatever it may be, even if it isn’t mine. And I also expect you to support mine.)

Also:

I’m not trying to say that, when someone is called butch or femme and does not identify that way, that that is not a misperception of your own personal identity – of course it is. That’s why the post was called “on misperceiving someone.”

It is insulting and difficult to be misperceived, to be misrepresented. As Daisy put it: “the person saying that doesn’t understand me, and like I’ve failed at gender expression.” I totally understand that – I hate being misperceived (as Daisy also points out, I said it bugs me when people told me “you’re not really butch”), but ultimately, that too is about the other person, not about my own identity. And just because one person misperceives me does not mean that I am not butch, if that is what I am choosing to call myself.

This clarification is important to me because I see many, many folks around me, many readers of this site, many of my friends, who tell me that they deeply want to identify as butch or femme, but are holding back for whatever reasons. Are suspicious of the identities, and are making their way down those paths of understanding how it will play out for them, in their own unique ways. I want to encourage that, when I can, share my knowledge of this identity process, and make it easier for someone else.

Now, on a related sidenote – being misperceived as butch or femme, or as not butch or not femme, is about the social policing of gender. The ways we, as a society and culture, enforce standards of gender on each other, on our friends and communities and lovers and strangers.

Miss Molly commented: “As much as we’d like to say there aren’t different rules in the queer community for butches and femmes, there are many of the double standards that exist for straight men and women.” Sure – there are standards out there, but they’re the same perceived cultural standards that enforce heterosexism and homophobia.

What I find most interesting here is who is doing the enforcing of these double standards. For example, I was in my favorite dyke watering hole not long ago and ordered a vodka cranberry with my usual bartender (who, at this point, calls me “dude” affectionately and shakes my hand when I walk in), and she actually leaned in close to me and said, “Are you sure? That’s awfully … sweet, you know.”

I cringed. Yes, I usually order beer and whiskey. Yes, the drink I ordered was “girly,” and my gender was insulted there, underneath that comment. But: this is about her, not about me. As I joke, sometimes: “I’m man enough to wear pink” – I’m also man enough (ahem, “man” enough, I should say) to order a cosmo or a midori sour or a vanilla vodka cranberry with a cherry if I want one. Yes, I know it’s a sweet drink. I’m aware of what I ordered, and I wouldn’t have ordered the drink if I didn’t want it.

Ultimately, that comment was about the bartender, and her ideas about how gender framework operates, not about me or how I operate. It is not her – or anyone’s – responsibility to police what they perceive to be my gender performance, and I’m at a point in my gender process and identity won’t let anyone else do it for me.

My point about that is this: Who is it that is making these “double standards?” Who enforces them? I read all sorts of things from all sorts of personal online diaries, articles, personal ads, queer media, books, gay culture – and everywhere I hear the same stories about butch and femme: those who don’t identify with butch and femme feel like they are being pushed to do so, and those who do feel like outcasts, like gender freaks who don’t fit in.

That’s a little heartbreaking to me, every time I get my Google alert with gender keywords in my inbox: yet another email full of “Femme women are noticeably less deviant and have a socially acceptable appearance,” and “a rigid and artificial dichotomy of male/butch/top/dominant and female/femme/bottom/submissive” and “the idea of ‘butch‘ and ‘femme’ is as frakked up as Albuquerque driving” and “all butches want to become men” and “I’m butch I suppose, but I’m no guy” and “all that boy/girl butch/femme crap – it’s not real!”

All over the lesbian/queer/dyke communities – my communities – I see people railing against this, from many perspectives. All I’m trying to do here is share my own stories and my own perceptions, illuminate the process a little bit, discuss it, open it up

I want to also echo Lady Brett’s comment: “If it does piss you off, it’s probably a matter of misperception. So, please, tell me. Give me the chance to fix it before you get offended.”

Yes. Please do tell me if I misperceive your identity. Tell anybody, when they misperceive any sort of identity of yours, not just in your gender identity. I’m not trying to blow off the misperception and to encourage you to just let them go on thinking you’re butch/femme/whatever – it is insulting! and, ultimately, inaccurate. Which makes us not feel seen, not feel acknowledged, not feel validated.

What I’m really getting at with that last post is the times when someone is misperceived, really in any way, and they are deeply insulted by it. There’s more to it than just “you don’t see me as I really am” – there’s this big set of implications because of those loaded words.

But again, I want to stress, I really believe that any misperception and insult is about the other person, not about me or my identity – and I do believe this goes both ways, being perceived as butch or not butch or femme or not femme or foreign or local or a hippie or a punk or bi or trans or anything that we don’t actually identify as.

Maybe I’m getting too Buddhist in my philosophies here. I was just reading Be the Person You Want to Find by Cheri Huber, and I’m feeling those philosophies seeping into my opinions on these subjects.

Identity categories are so personal, so intimate – and the theory around them is so slippery! I mean, if anyone can identify as anything, if social policing means nothing, then what is the real meaning of an identity label? Some theorists would say, ultimately, it’s all basically meaningless. I can get there, can understand those arguments – but I also know what it feels like to be inside of these identity categories, and to know precisely how it works for me, how it’s given me a beautiful structure in which to tinker and fuck around and play.

These topics are really difficult, and anytime I post something that gets heated and emotional, I always take the comments very seriously, and consider my points even harder. I am not claiming to speak for everyone here – man, that is one of the best things about blogs, is immediate discussion and feedback and comments like this. I’m only speaking from my own perspective about my own experience, with hopes that it occasionally is helpful to others. Speaking of the round-bellied-guy, I want to echo a quote from the Buddha that I’ve got hanging on my fridge, and was reminded of this week:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.